If they had thought about it for more than five seconds, Bath might have realised that the chances of receiving a free gift from Northampton in tonight’s big Premiership game at the Recreation Ground were zero at best.
The Midlanders are travelling fully armed – leaving aside two injured Test Lions in George North and Alex Corbisiero, together with the incapacitated England hooker Dylan Hartley. All the heavy weaponry will be pointing at the West Countrymen and if they prevail, the race for play-off places will be wide open.
Northampton are already guaranteed a semi-final berth and, with a hectic spell ahead of them, they could easily have rested the likes of Stephen Myler, Kahn Fotuali’i, Salesi Ma’afu, Samu Manoa, Courtney Lawes and Tom Wood, secure in the knowledge that victory over a less-than-frightening Wasps at Franklin’s Gardens a week tomorrow would guarantee them the home tie they crave. Instead, they will chase that prize this evening – a bold statement clearly designed to unnerve their hosts ahead of the European Challenge Cup final between the two later this month.
Having spent all season in the top third of the league table, Bath will feel mighty hard done by if they are squeezed out by Leicester, level on points going into this penultimate round of league fixtures, and Harlequins, whom they meet tomorrow week in the last round-robin game. The Londoners are half a dozen points adrift, but it would be just like them to record a bonus-point victory at Exeter on Sunday. All things considered, Mike Ford’s side cannot afford to lose tonight.
There will be plenty of emotion percolating through the full-house audience. Nick Abendanon, one of the more adventurous full-backs of recent times, starts in what is almost certainly his last appearance at The Rec – he is leaving for the top French club Clermont Auvergne at season’s end – while Stuart Hooper, the captain, will be making his 200th Premiership appearance.
More intriguingly, there is no place for the highly rated inside centre Kyle Eastmond, who ended last weekend’s Amlin Challenge Cup semi-final victory at Wasps in the sin bin. Ollie Devoto has been selected ahead of him, with Gavin Henson on the bench.
Hooper, a captain of significant stature, believes this to be a watershed game for the club. “It’s definitely up there with the most important games I’ve experienced,” said the lock, who has also played top-flight rugby at Saracens and Leeds. “Everything is concentrated on this and it’s going to be awesome. It’s do or die for us: we’re not here for 40-odd weeks of kicking a ball around; we’re here for the last four or five weeks, when the silverware is there to be lifted.”
London Irish are in no danger of lifting so much as a salt cellar this season, but they have struck a heavy blow ahead of next term by securing the services of the Super 15 fly-half Chris Noakes from the Auckland-based Blues.